I recently received a copy of first-time author Barbara Vance‘s Suzie Bitner Was Afraid of the Drain, a collection of children’s poetry, and was informed that I would love it, by every one of my friends with kids. At first, I wondered if that was a jab at my love for Disney films and morning cartoons, or a hint to follow in their child-bearing footsteps; either way, I found myself connecting to the humor and innocently refreshing quality of Vance’s turns of phrases.
Vance is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Art and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. While working on her degree, she needed an outlet to voice her art and began working on the draft of Suzie Bitner Was Afraid of the Drain. Vance has been writing since she was just over three inches tall (at least that’s what she told and said she didn’t want to bore with the long story) and rediscovered that passion to write and illustrate while working her way through the Ph.D. program. You can meet her at a reading Thursday night.
In the collection of 124 poems, she explores the childhood experience. Some poems take a realistic look at the problems kids face, from bullying (“The Terrible Thing about Cindy”) to nightmares (“Something’s There”) to cooties (“Girls”), while other poems are fantastical, like “A Ghost Who Loves Movies” and “Don’t Make the Tooth Fairy Angry.” Inherent in all the work is the emotional rollercoaster that is childhood, and Vance presents it all in a fun and positive way.
While on the surface, Suzie Bitner looks like an easy bedtime read, Vance’s poetic style juxtaposes the traditional children’s book. The material is, of course, relatable: it’s funny, endearing, and depicts exactly what kids go through on an everyday basis. Every kid has been told to take a bath because they have “Stinky Feet,” dealt with the issue of “Sharing” with a sibling, and has made that “Fast Friend” that lasts a lifetime. But every adult can relate to the material as well. The themes are universal, ranging from acceptance to an awareness of the body to cultivating creativity, and transcend those informative years of childhood.
Two of the poems that resonated with me were “Sandwich Sister” and “Dinah.” “Sandwich Sister” stuck with me like peanut butter and jelly – literally, the protagonist eats so many PB&J sandwiches that she turns into one – for three reasons: it reminded me of the experience of Violet in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (“You’re turning violet, Violet!”); my mother used to always tell me to stop doing certain things because my face was going to stay that way; and the adjoining illustrations define Vance’s pictorial style. A simple pen and ink drawing succinctly illustrates the transformation of the little girl. Her big doe-eyes take in the delicious sandwich and her development into peanut-buttery goodness is both charming and slightly disgusting. But it relays the message: over-consumption never works out.
“Dinah” reminded me of myself as a child. Growing up an only child, I used to play dress-up and create fantasy worlds in my bedroom. I would wrap myself up in my sheets, parade around in mother’s high heels, and put my father’s ties on my teddy bears. I would stage performances for my dolls and my cat, and instead of laying my “pretending to rest,” I found, like Dinah, “a magic that most can’t conceive; It’s a pleasure we all can partake in, If we let ourselves simply believe.”
Vance introduces these challenging concepts and words to help expand the young readers’ vocabularies allowing for interaction and discussion between the adult readers and children. But beyond the strength of her lyricism, Vance’s illustrations are lovely and appropriate. Like the drawings in “Sandwich Sister,” the words in “The Sun Is Hot” radiate out of the title like sunbeams, creating a visual representation of the text. Overall, her illustrations never draw attention away from the poetry; they only enhance it. The book also includes an index of the poems, both by title and by first line for easy reference.
With echoes of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, Suzie Bitner Was Afraid of the Drain is sure to entertain, educate, and become one of those go-to books for children as they become teens and later adults. I know that I still dust my copy of Sidewalk, and Suzie Bitner has earned her place on the same shelf.
Suzie Bitner was published in early 2010 and Vance has found the time to stage public readings and visit local bookstores to publicize the book. Vance says she enjoys long walks on warm, breezy days, the oncoming of fall weather, playing games, and has a strange distaste for chocolate. Suzie Bitner Was Afraid of the Drain can be found online and at select Barnes and Noble’s and Borders. Catch Vance reading from her book at the University of Texas at Dallas on Thursday, November 18 at 7:30pm in Performance Hall.